Sunday, 24 November 2013

Photographers (part 1)

Walker Evans 1903 - 1975

The progenitor of the documentary tradition in American photography, Evans had the extraordinary ability to see the present as if it were already the past, and to translate that knowledge and historically inflected vision into an enduring art.

American Photographs is still for many artists the benchmark against which all photographic monographs are judged.
Walker Evans, Sidewalk and Shopfront, New Orleans, 1935.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
With a 35mm Contax camera strapped to his chest, its lens peeking out between two buttons of his winter coat, Evans was able to photograph his fellow passengers surreptitiously, and at close range. Although the setting was public, he found that his subjects, unposed and lost in their own thoughts, displayed a constantly shifting medley of moods and expressions—by turns curious, bored, amused, despondent, dreamy, and dyspeptic. "The guard is down and the mask is off," he remarked. "Even more than in lone bedrooms (where there are mirrors), people's faces are in naked repose down in the subway."

In 1973, Evans began to work with the Polaroid SX-70 camera the virtues of the camera fit perfectly with his search for a concise yet poetic vision of the world. The unique SX-70 prints are the artist's last photographs, the culmination of half a century of work in photography. With this camera, Evans returned to several of his enduring themes, such as, signs, posters, and their ultimate reduction, the letter forms themselves. Google has a selection of these images and they can be found here; they are also available in a book.

Polaroid image of sign taken by Walker Evans, ~1973.
Selected from Google Images.

Jacob August Riis 1849–1914

Riis was among the first photographers to use flash powder, which enabled him to photograph interiors and exteriors of the slums at night. Flash was a German innovation, by Adolf Miethe and Johannes Gaedicke, flash powder was a mixture of magnesium with potassium chlorate and some antimony sulfide for added stability; the powder was used in a pistol-like device that fired cartridges.

Riis, Dr John Nagle, Henry Piffard and Richard Hoe Lawrence using flash photography started documenting the slums. Their first article was published in The Sun (New York) in February 1888 and the article was illustrated by twelve line drawings based on the photographs of "Gotham's crime and misery by night and day". Riis photographed the slums for only 10 years and printed as half-tones or used as a basis for engravings to illustrate his newspaper articles. The images taken during this period became the foundation of Riis's later book entitled 'How the other half lives'.

Bandit's Roost, Mulberry Street by Jacob Riis, ~1888.
Masters of Photography

Riis was the first to realise the power of photographic documentation in the campaign for social reform. Plus because if his role as a police reporter he had access to some of the worst slums and because of his role as a journalist was in the ideal position to communicate these atrocities to a bigger audience. Riis developed a tersely melodramatic writing style and he became one of the earliest reformist journalists.

Reference sites
Spartacus Educational




Assignment 1 planning (part 3)

Investigating the market images found on the web…

There are numerous images, but they tend to be limited in terms of presentation and imagination. Please don’t think I am inferring that the images a bad in any way, on the contrary, some are quite stunning.

In addition, I feel a bit “pot calling the kettle” because my existing market images are effectively the same. Referring back to my tutors email images of market stalls and stall holders will not suffice for a level 2 course; so, how do I "push my images further"?

I was at the gym last week and watching music videos, I say watching because I left my headphones at home – big mistake. Nonetheless, it was interesting, because I actually watched the videos (probably for the first time) and the lack of sound created a very different experience. For the first time I had to make sense of the videos with only the song title and the artist or groups name. One of the new videos was Go Gentle by Robbie Williams and I was fascinated by the way the director used slow-motion to emphasize what was happening.

Having now listened to the video, I can honestly say I didn’t come close to guessing what it was about; but the video does very cleverly support the lyrics. However, I’m still not quite sure about the pirate ship or the captain’s outfit…

Also thinking about photography in terms of speed, documentary and pushing the boundaries – I was reminded of the Eadweard Muybridge galloping horse experiment and whilst it wasn’t slowed video it was movement captured by a rapid sequence of still images. Quite revolutionary in its time and absolutely accepted as documentary evidence that a horse does have all four feet of the ground when galloping.

Why am I talking about this? I suppose it relates back to Exercise 3 and Jose’s question about what makes a document. Inevitably, context and meaning were going to come into the discussion as well as the key question about whether a single image can stand alone as a document. Each time I think about this I find myself reverting back to the definition of ‘a document’.

George Georgiou (British photojournalist) has had numerous exhibitions and regularly presents two images on a single page - see The Shadow of The Bear. Interestingly, these images are not necessarily sequential or even immediately related, but support the photo-essay in GG way of conveying the information.

Going back to the Robbie Williams video, I find a degree of similarity between some of the slow-motion clips and the Turks 1 exhibition photographs.

Historically, the best images I have taken (feedback from previous tutors) are the images that make the viewer think. These have tended to be images with a number of possibly related, or possibly not related, activities happening within the images – hence the requirement to think. Normally, my images have titles and captions as part of my write up for assignment submission, thus my context is provided by me for my images; the viewer can then use or ignore this information at an individual level.

I’m not quite sure why I’m obsessing over this, perhaps too much philosophy and contemplation? Since this is a documentary course, do my images for this assignment need to be more poignant than anything I’ve done before? Back to my tutor’s feedback and ‘image pushing’ so the answer must be yes. Time for more obsessing…

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Assignment 1 planning (part 2)

The subject: The Market

Some questions that need answering:
  1. What do I want to say about the market?
  2. Why do I find the market so interesting?
  3. What are the key elements of the market?
  4. Should it be lots of elements of one market or vise versa?
  5. Are buildings/stalls integral to the atmosphere or purely a backdrop?
  6. How do I fully communicate 'the market' without words?
  7. If I need words to communicate, how do I use them?
Some thoughts on the matter:

I think people watching is the reason the market is so interesting - the interactions and the bartering; lots of mini events playing out in front of you all the time. That said, it would take a significant amount of pre-visualisation and luck to take enough 'mini-event' images to create a reasonable portfolio for this assignment.

In general, I don't find watching people shopping (in shops) as interesting. This may be because it feels more intrusive; whilst markets tend to be more crowded, they also feel more open. Similarly, when a market is finished and everybody has gone; the space feels lonely and expectant at the same time - possibly the lingering ghosts of previous generations... (Walton would have a field-day!) Does this mean that the stalls help create the atmosphere?

I believe this portfolio will require words, however, I'm not sure of the format these words should take. A simple caption, whilst a little boring, may suffice; but an interview (or anecdote) from the owner (as per John Londei's book Shutting Up Shop) would be much more interesting, if not insightful.

Thus the words will have a direct bearing upon how the images are presented. Captions are simple enough to add and the images could be presented in the blog. Whereas, anything bigger would really need to be presented in 'book' format - careless layout could have a negative impact on the relationship between the words and the photographs.

In terms of delivery, the course notes state that we need to submit 10 unmounted quality prints. One for discussion with my tutor.

Magnum In Motion

As part of my investigation into the development of documentary photography, I decided to look at the Magnum website to gain insight into one of the best know collectives of excellent documentary photographers and photojournalists.

I found Magnum In Motion - home to some of the best photo essays, what an eye opener...

What is a photo essay?

This is my take from the essays I have watched.
  • Photographs of every conceivable type - colour and B&W; sharp and blurred; close-up and distant (almost impossible to make out); every subject matter.
  • Narration - this appears to be personal choice. It could be the photographer; the crowd or even voice over clips from the archive.
  • Music - background music seems to be a requirement, especially if there is not narration. Music does not have to be a know 'tune', but a mixture of the most appropriate noise that fits the sequence of images in the essay.
Listed below are some of my favourites:
  1. The East was Tugging at My Soul by and about Marilyn Silverstone
  2. Playas by Martin Parr
  3. No Whisper, No Sigh by the Magnum Group

I think the most consistent element to these essays is the conceptual thinking, the attention to detail when considering how everything will hang together to create the desired effect - ensure the correct story is told.

I sincerely recommend this site to anybody studying this course.

Photographs from the family collection

Exercise 4 - make a selection of up to five photographs from your personal or family collection. They can be as recent or as old as you wish. The only requirement is that they depict events that are relevant to you on a personal level and couldn't belong to anyone else.

Using OCA forums, ask the learning communities to provide short captions or explanation for your photographs.

Photographs personal to me...

Photograph 1

Photograph 2

Photograph 3

Photograph 4

Photograph 5

I look forward to reading your comments.

Assignment 1 planning (part 1)

Email from me to my tutor dated 9-Nov-2013

Good morning,
I hope you are fit and well and appreciating the change in the weather.
I'm writing to tell you that I am getting on with the course and have completed up to exercise 4. Unfortunately, without this email you couldn't possibly know this because my access to the Internet, via BT Infinity, is nonexistent. I have recommended to BT that they rename their service BT Infinitesimal! The 'technician' on the other end of the phone didn't think this was at all funny.
Currently I'm not at all sure what I'm going to do for assignment 1, but have a couple of ideas:
  • The local market, we have some real characters and normally with a bit of discussion they are prepared to have their photographs taken.
  • The project team at work, significantly more challenging because they don't want their photographs taken, but in terms of situational portraits its a real opportunity.
  • The street, I live in the 'village', it is a single row of ex-tied miners cottages and a number of the residents are still miners (from the open cast pit); I would love to be able to do this, but I think it will take longer to set up than I have for this assignment. I'm hoping with a bit of lateral thinking and some further development of my image ideas I may be able to use this for assignment 3.
In terms of assignment 4, I think it must be something about Walton and his transparency of pictures - for some reason I have taken a very strong dislike to the utter drivel he has written in the particular paper! At the same time I also find myself a fan of Bazin.
Initially, I found Walton's paper very difficult to understand, so I dissected it paragraph by paragraph, by the end of which I had written (albeit) a very emotional and negative two and a half thousand word response. Currently, my response only references Bazin (in order to defend him), but I think with the inclusion of other people (references) and a more balanced discussion around transparency, it has the legs to work for the 'critical review'. However, at this stage I have no thoughts as to what my personal project would be and how I would link it back to my critical review.

Referring to your email, in terms of the kind of documentary I would like to do, I don't know.
Work I like - Atget, Meyerowitz, Crewdson. I find the images considered and clever, they have an eye for an image that you can't always immediately pin-point.
Work that's ok - Parr and Gliden. Again clever images, but with a certain edginess derived from the less salubrious side of our lives. I always feel glad that they've never photographed me...
Work that's not me - Goldin (older work), Billingham, it's a long list. Great documentary images, but very much from the other side of life. I come from a great home and a very loving family and, more and more frequently, I truly appreciate how lucky I am. At the same time, I'm struggling with the idea that my background makes me an inferior photographer. In our current world, it appears that only those of the tortured-soul persuasion are the ones with enough pain to be truly artistic...
Response from my tutor dated 10-Nov-2013

Good to hear from you - and currently sheltering from the rather cold conditions! I share your frustrations with the internet - we have BT at work and it regularly drops out.
Firstly I have just returned from OCA HQ so thought I would give some initial feedback with regard to blogs.
Do take care that your blog is very easy to navigate. You want to have links that take the reader straight to the assignments. Also a separate heading for all research posts. Lastly the main learning log posts should be easy to navigate through. I have had a look again at your People and Place blog and this doesn't quite have this ease of navigation. Having more categories would be better to be able to find different sections. For level 2 there is a much greater requirement for recording your progress and by reflecting on your work and relating to the work of others. Please don't worry about changing/updating past blogs BUT do take care in the layout for this one.
I will try and answer the points you raise - but if I have missed anything do let me know.
Critical Review - I would hold on this until you get settled into the course and see what direction your work is going.
Future assignments
Again it is good that you are thinking ahead but do not commit to anything. The work on the course should be organic and the sequence of assignments should allow you to develop your work from one to the next. The assignments are not set in stone - and there is great flexibility for you to take an idea and run with it, in negotiation with a tutor. More important then answering the brief is your reaction, discussion and production of work.

Assignment 1
For this assignment choose a subject that is easy to manage. I think you want to make a start on the course so it is key to be able to turn it around.
The other thing is that you want to be able to shoot, review images and then reshoot. The market does seem to be a feasible subject for this matter.

Do think about how you push the images further - at level 2 you want to be able to move this on visually from images of stall holders behind their stalls. This is where some research comes in. It should be easy to find some traditional images of markets and market traders - I'm sure Flickr can provide some examples. Look at the images - it can be good here to annotate them. Look at the similarities in image style, can you see repetitions in photographic approach. Now think how you can build on this.

Good photographers to look at would be Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange. Although shooting in the 1930s they were able to identify with the subjects in a way that their images are still visually interesting to us today.

John Londei's project 'Shutting Up Shop' is a more contemporary project to look at.
Photographic Style
You will find that your taste into photographers changes over time - you can appreciate a photographers work without liking them particularly. Level 2 courses should be seen as an opportunity to experiment with different styles of working (this is exactly what students on the second year of a degree course would be encouraged to do).

I have written a lot here - do come back to me with any queries.
So, in summary - good ideas, keep on thinking, but don't go dashing off down any specific road without speaking to me.
Next steps:
  1. Look at Flickr and identify 'market' images I like and don't like
  2. Check out John Londei's project, plus any others I may find
  3. Get out and take some images, start to find my own feet...

Jose asks: "What makes a document?"

Exercise 3 - read the post "What makes a document?" on WeAreOCA, including all the replies to it and write your own comment both on the blog page and in your own blog.

Make sure your reply is personal and authoritative. Express you opinion on the topic of the blog and substantiate your comments with solid arguments, ideally referring to other contributions to the blog.

Jose posses a question:
So is it time or is it context that makes a document? Or is it something else?

Bearing in mind I just had the joy of reading Walton on the transparency of photographs - I promise not to talk about fictional or directly seeing.  My first point would be that in order to be a document the photograph needs to be of a 'real' event, so regarding this photograph (as Rob stated) "If nothing else it also documents that [Jose's Grandfather] stood in front of a large wall on a sunny day." That said, I do not question that a fictional novel is a document.

With respect to time, I believe a number of elements need to come together for that photograph to become a document and then to have any gravitas in later years. For example, that:

1.      The photograph was taken in the first place
2.      Events conspire to enable the photograph to become a document
3.      The photograph is found and that somebody knows the story, thus providing provenance and creating a document of interest
4.      The 'owner' is perceptive enough to understand that it is a document
5.      The document can find an audience that are receptive and interested.

A classic example of this is the photography book "Bill Wood's Business". Diane Keaton (actress) purchased a photographic archive and within the archives were thousands of images of Fort Worth, Texas, taken by Bill Wood, over the period of thirty years. The photographs effectively chronicle the lives of the residents and whilst individually they are quite ordinary, together they provide a fascinating insight into all aspects of daily life during that period. All 5 of the above points occurred and resulted in the publication and distribution of Wood's work.

Regardless of how perfectly executed the photograph, as Anne stated (most ably, albeit unknowingly, paraphrasing Berger) "the document would need to have an anchor in the original reality even though it would still be open to differing readings". Berger states that, regardless of subject, because "photographs have been taken out of a continuity" they are all ambiguous. Returning again to Wood's photographs, the captions are very generic because little or no information was included with the archive. This does not make the collection any less documentary in function, just less detailed in factual information.

Anne's follow on question, "can one photograph be a document?" is very valid. It opens the discussion to the amalgamation of words and images and the age old debate that 'if you need words you photograph isn't good enough'. Looking back at the images proffered by Jose, regardless of time (his grandfather 70 years ago and Gaddafi in 2008) both required 'words' to engage the audience. Are we now talking about the difference between photojournalism, reportage and documentary photography?

Jim adds an interesting dimension, that culture means that certain documents will have greater significance to certain sections of the population. I would extend this beyond just culture and include age, disability, ethnic origin, religious belief, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic background and political opinion; I have no doubt there are numerous other 'groups' that could be added to this list.

So, finally, what makes a photograph a document?
In my opinion, as long as it is an image (or multiple images - photomontage) of a real event(s) it is a document.

Here is a link to one of the more insightful reviews of the difference between photojournalism and documentary photography written by Antonin Kratochvil (Czech-born American photojournalist).

Transparent Pictures by Kendall L Walton (part 3)

Continuing on...

I believe Walton's ideas about transparency can be discussed using these two extracts:

  1. "[...] photography is a supremely realistic medium [...]" 
  2. "Dissenters note how unlike reality a photograph is and how unlikely we are to confused one with the other."
Simply, Walton theory is "because a photograph is created by a mechanical process, 'people' believe it tells the truth without skew or influence inferred by the photographer". Herein lies the lack of transparency misunderstood by the layperson. Adding weight to his theory, he introduces statements from photographers who understand how open to interpretation and influence photographs are and utilise this freedom to create their pictures.

To clarify, Walton accepts that art (painting) could be perceived to be very realistic but is understood by the viewer to be 'art' and therefore not expected to tell the 'truth' - it can legitimately be the artists 'take' on the truth.

Walton then pushes further claiming that because of the realism of photography; regardless of subject matter e.g. unicorns; the viewer is conned, confused and deluded into believing that they are seeing not a photograph, but the real thing.

So, as to my views...

I agree with Walton that there is a transparency 'issue' and a lack of understanding (generally) regarding the ability of a photograph/photographer to skew the truth. I also agree with Walton's claim that "we see, quite literally, our dead relatives themselves" in photographs.

However, I cannot subscribe to his philosophical debate about the confusion people suffer regarding seeing the object rather than the image of the object. When I look at my ancestors, I see a realistic likeness of my ancestors; similarly, when I see myself, I see my likeness. I do not believe that hold my ancestors, or myself, or my dog or my house in my hand. Nor do I believe that the photograph captured anything other than a fleeting moment in time - I don't believe that my ancestor is still sitting in the chair or that my dog is still on his walk.

I believe, Walton like many other philosophers, likes to manipulate and twist the words of others; and also stretch and modify the definition of words; to enable and create debate. QED: "Photographs are transparent. We see the world through them." Also see "Photographic Pictures" ref: Walton's comments on words used by Roger Scruton regarding photographs and representation.
Attached is a photograph of my scribbled notes on my copy of Walton's paper about transparent pictures. My copy still looks like this, covered with blue ink and highlighted in green marker, however, it's no longer strewn across my desk, it's neatly collected and inserted into my OCA file. That's my OCA file, it's just to the left of the paper you can just make out the 'A', interestingly enough it's in exactly the same position now... Or is it?
My scribbled thoughts and questions about Walton's theories and questions.

Transparent Pictures by Kendall L Walton (part 2)

Continuing on...

What about Kendall L Walton the man?

Kendall Lewis Walton (1939) is an American philosopher, holding professorships in Philosophy at Charles Stevenson Collegiate and Art and Design at the University of Michigan.

Walton's significant contribution to philosophy is his theory of representation and is detailed in his book "Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts" first published in 1990. His theory, also known as the make-believe theory, looks to explain the nature and varieties of representation in the arts.

He has also written extensively about: photography as transparent; pictorial representation; fiction and aesthetics.

His CV is 13 pages long and makes for very interesting reading.

He was awarded an honorary degree 'Doctor of Letters' by the University of Nottingham, UK in 2005.

Transparent Pictures by Kendall L Walton (part 1)

Exercise 2 - read the first three sections of the essay "Transparent Picture: On the Nature of Photographic Realism" by Kendall L Walton and write a 200 word reflective commentary outlining your views about Walton's idea of photographic transparency.

I started reading the paper by Walton and I have to admit to being far from impressed. I think my scribbled notes at the end of section three sum it up - "total and utter unadulterated rubbish, academic piffle at its consummate best!" (This is the censored version for publication.)

In my defence I had 'trudged' all the way through these sections, getting more and more frustrated by the paragraph, then coming to his final comment "We now have uncovered a major source of the confusion which infects the writings about photography and film..."
Again from my scribbled notes "I dispute the use of the word 'uncovered'; I would respectfully suggest the sentence should read as follows: We now have deliberately created a major source of the confusion which infects the writings about photography and film... -  thus enabling philosophers and academics to waffle on about something for years.
At this point I decided the only way to approach this exercise was to systematically dissect the paper paragraph-by-paragraph in the hope that I could write something that was semi-balanced.
At the end of my dissection, I'd written over 2,500 words and in all honesty it wasn't that balanced! So, time to put the work away and go and do something else...

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Miranda Gavin on documentary photograph

Exercise 1 - listen to Miranda Gavin (editor of HOTshoe Magazine) talking about documentary photography and write a 200 word reflective commentary setting out your reactions to Gavin's viewpoints.

My first reaction was surprise that there were so many categories, and subcategories, into which photography was divided. Picking out the salient divisions mentioned by Gavin, namely: photojournalism, documentary and reportage - I had to go away and actually think about what each word/area/division meant (if anything) to me.

 After a quick brainstorm, I came up with the following definitions:

Photojournalism: -
Ø         Immediate - get in, get the image, get out...
Ø         Focused on or specific to a particular event, or part thereof
Ø         Often sensationalised, biased and superficial
Ø         Potentially (frequently) untrue
Ø         Designed to sell a story as dictated by the editor.

Documentary: -
Ø         Extended, possibly ongoing, time frame - days, weeks, months...
Ø         More rounded (holistic) in the information presented about the event - including background and credible references
Ø         Creation of a balanced view (all sides and angles) of the event
Ø         An accurate account of the situation
Ø         Designed to tell the story using the voice of the people involved.

Reportage: -
Sits somewhere in between the first two - a bit more time and a bit more depth; less sensationalism and less bias; a little bit less the voice of the media and a little bit more the voice of the subjects...

Subsequent to some trawling of the web and discussions with 'colleagues' it would appear, that whilst I have a somewhat negative view of journalists, my basic definitions are correct.

So back to my reaction to Gavin's viewpoint:

I find it interesting, but unsurprising, that these 'historic' labels are becoming inadequate to describe the work currently being created by a new generation of artists. What I did find very surprising, was that emerging artists were choosing a label and thus pigeonhole themselves with these terms. Especially so because technology advances and photography as a digital medium, will and must continue to change, develop and adapt. We are already saturated with images of varying degrees of quality covering every conceivable topic; as a result photographers will have to modify their existing practises and style to stand out in this crowd.

As Gavin states in the interview, "these topics have been covered before, so people are having to look at new ways to show them" and the resultant images created overlap the boundaries of these definitions because "they are too rigid to reflect what's actually happening". The only way to describe it "is art merging into documentary merging into creative" and as such "we are having to renegotiate and having to probe these terms - consciously or subconsciously".

Extremely interesting was Gavin's concern re: the impact on the relationships between the photograph and the audience, as a result of the development of this new digital platform. Initially, how do you maintain the quality control of the image - viewed on countless uncalibrated monitors? Then subsequently, how do you ensure the correct distribution?


This is the first post, in my new blog, about my fourth photography course with the OCA.

My intention is to use this blog to record my learning journey through this course. I anticipate that it will take approximately 18 months to complete and I hope to add to this blog on at least a weekly basis.

My course is (HE5): Photography 2: Documentary

Course overview summary:
In this unit you will explore historical and contemporary strategies (a combination of technical, visual and conceptual methodologies) in documentary photography.  
You will engage in critical debate and consider relevant social and cultural perspectives, including the ethics of representing conflict, suffering and other peoples and cultures.  
This unit fosters a documentary approach underpinned by the ideas of the documentary photographer as an author and documentary photography as a tool for communication.
For more information specific to this course click here.